Metaphor, metonymy, and euphemism in the language of economics and business

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Metaphor
  • 3. Metonymy
  • 4. Euphemism
  • 5. Conclusion


Tropes are a general feature of human communication and, as such, they are by definition present in all languages and all types of communication. Nevertheless, languages and genres vary substantially in their preferences for some tropes over others, the lexicalization of single instances and the conventionalization of specific sub-patterns. The purpose of the present chapter is to analyse these aspects with respect to the language of economics and business. In this area metaphor, metonymy and euphemism are particularly relevant, which is the principal reason why we concentrate on these three types of tropes among the many others distinguished by scholars of rhetoric. Section 2 on metaphor is by Franz Rainer, Section 3 on metonymy by Regina Goke, and Section 4 on euphemism by Fiorenza Fischer.


Terminological preliminaries

What is a metaphor? This apparently simple question has occupied a host of philosophers, literary critics, linguists and cognitive psychologists for decades, if not centuries, with no far-reaching consensus in sight. The reason for this must surely lie in the fact that metaphor is a multifaceted phenomenon and that its analysis is intimately tied to highly controversial issues such as the nature of meaning. For the purposes of this section, it will suffice to provide a brief outline of some of the contentious issues, in order to fix the terminology and allow the reader better to appreciate the following sections on metaphor in economics and business.

In common understanding, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”, to use Merriam-Webster’s definition.

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-018

Calling Mao Zedong the Great Helmsman is a case in point: here a word (helmsman) that in its literal use denotes a mariner who is at the helm of a ship is applied to a political leader. The analogy that this metaphorical transfer seeks to establish is quite straightforward: Mao’s role with respect to the state is to be perceived as resembling that of a helmsman steering a ship. The adjective great and the general context make it clear that we should not imagine Mao as a political manifestation of Francesco Schettino causing the Costa Concordia to run aground, but as a powerful man guiding the Chinese ship of state through dangerous waters/times with a firm hand.

This example can be used to illustrate a frequent and somewhat awkward ambiguity in the use of the term metaphor. Taking the Merriam-Webster definition literally, the metaphor above is created by the application of the English word helmsman to the historical figure of Mao Zedong. The German equivalent Grower Steuermann or the original Chinese expression, for that matter, would then count as different, though functionally equivalent metaphors. However, in another terminological tradition particularly popular among contemporary cognitive linguists, a metaphor is defined as a relationship between two concepts. In our example, the metaphor would be considered to consist of a “mapping” of the concept ‘helmsman’ onto the concept associated with Mao. Thus the English word helmsman as used above would not constitute a metaphor, but a “metaphorical expression”. In order to avoid the confusion arising from this double terminological tradition, concept-to-concept mappings are also often called “conceptual metaphors”.

The helmsman example also makes it clear that metaphors do not necessarily constitute isolated processes or entities. The ‘helmsman’ metaphor, for example, clearly establishes an instantiation of the more general ‘ship of state’ metaphor, following from a relatively straightforward structural analogy between ‘ship’, ‘helmsman’ and ‘steer’ on the one hand, and ‘state’, ‘leader’ and ‘govern’ on the other. This structural analogy, by the way, still has generative potential, as was shown by Jonathan Fenby in saying that the former French president Jacques Chirac “chose Alain Juppe as the mast for his ship of state” (France on the Brink. 2nd edn. New York: Arcade 2014, p. 333).

Nothing said up to this point seems to have been controversial in the literature on metaphor. There is much disagreement, however, over the exact relationship between metaphorical expressions and conceptual metaphors, for example over how abstract conceptual metaphors should be, how systematic they are, and whether they are universal or language-specific. With respect to this third aspect, scholars who believe that most metaphors draw upon knowledge concerning our body and bodily experiences claim that conceptual metaphors should be widely shared across languages, since the human body is roughly the same for all human beings. But further investigation has revealed that culture plays a decisive role in shaping conceptual metaphors. (The ‘helmsman’ metaphor, for example, trivially presupposes the existence of ships with helms.) Another moot point is the place of conceptual metaphors in human cognition: while nobody denies the importance of metaphors for conceiving novel ideas via analogy or inducing others to do so, some scholars argue for the metaphorical nature of our whole cognitive system. Nonetheless, this latter hypothesis, which reaches back at least to Friedrich Nietzsche and still holds some sway in extreme versions of modern constructivism, is not articulated with great precision and is thus difficult to assess empirically.

Metaphors are relatively heterogeneous if viewed from the point of view of their function in human cognition or communication. As mentioned above, it is still controversial whether metaphor, or analogy, really constitutes the core of human cognition. But other, more modest claims seem to be shared by most scholars in the field. In science - even the “hard” sciences like physics - metaphor is readily granted an important heuristic role in establishing hypotheses and theories, and initially formulating these. Analogical transfer is indeed one of the most common heuristic strategies in scholarly research, as we will see in the following sections dedicated to economics and business. In this context, metaphors provide not only new ideas - new ways of looking at things - but also a vocabulary to communicate these. In fact, many scientific terms are of metaphorical origin, though this may no longer be perceived. Moreover, metaphors can also be used to explain abstract or otherwise complicated matters to others. This pedagogical function of metaphor is often difficult to distinguish from the heuristic function, since the same metaphor can be used for both purposes.

The functions mentioned so far are mainly relevant in academic and educational contexts. By contrast, the two functions which have been at the centre of discussions about metaphors since Aristotle, those of persuasion and embellishment, although not absent from scientific discourse, feature much more prominently in politics, the courtroom, journalism, literature, and in everyday language. Correlations of this kind between function and genre are treated in more detail in Skorczynska and Deignan (2006), who conclude that “the social context and purpose of a text is an important factor in metaphor choice, and possibly at least as significant as subject matter” (p. 102).

A further dimension which contributes to the heterogeneity of metaphors is the degree to which they are still perceived to be metaphoric. All natural languages are replete with words that were once metaphors but are now completely opaque for the average speaker without an etymological dictionary at hand (the English word chef, for example, goes back to Latin caput ‘head’ via French chef (de cuisine)). But between these fully opaque, or “dead” metaphors and “live”, i.e. completely novel, metaphors, there is a large grey area populated by metaphors with different degrees of conventionalization and figurativeness. The relevance of this grey area for the theory of metaphor continues to be highly controversial. Traditionally, metaphor theorists have focused on “fresh”, surprising metaphors, whose creation was termed by Aristotle the “mark of genius”, while conventional metaphors, even if still transparent, used to be frowned upon with contempt as “cliches”. Cognitive linguists

(cf. Gibbs 2015), by contrast, have made this grey area one of the main foci of their research, starting from the hypothesis that conventional metaphors form clusters of conceptual metaphors that can be used as “windows” providing access to our conceptual system which, as the reader will recall, is regarded as essentially metaphorical in nature by such scholars. Opponents of this kind of cognitive-linguistic metaphor research (cf. Murphy 1996, 1997) have criticized it for being circular, since language (metaphorical idioms) is perceived to directly reflect cognition. They maintain that a sound approach would have to provide independent evidence of the cognitive impact of this kind of idiomatic language.

The last dimension along which metaphors may differ concerns the nature of the correspondence between the source domain (the “vehicle”, in another terminological tradition) and the target domain (the “tenor”). As seen in the Merriam-Webster definition referred to earlier, we are dealing with “a likeness or analogy”. And indeed, a metaphor can establish a relationship of resemblance with respect to some “superficial” feature, such as colour or shape. However, it can also establish a “deeper” structural analogy, as in the ‘helmsman’ example used above, or in academic “root metaphors” like ‘the economy as a machine’, which can be seen as invitations to explore the target domain in the light of the source domain. This exploration may be carried out by explicit and protracted reasoning, as in theory construction, or in a flash of intuition, as in many literary contexts, which makes the notion of metaphor even more heterogeneous.

As the reader can infer from the discussion above, the term metaphor has been used to refer to a set of phenomena that do not form a homogeneous category, though they are certainly tied together by multiple family resemblances. It is important to bear this in mind in order to avoid fruitless discussions. With that, we will turn from these inevitably cursory remarks on metaphor and metaphor studies to a closer examination of the literature on metaphor use in economics and business. Section 2.2 will focus on work produced by economists and management scholars themselves, while Section 2.3 will be dedicated to the linguistic literature.

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